Solipsistic Heart and Universal Song: Ryan Adams, Prisoner, and Truth in the 21st Century

In September of 2000, with the nation in the midst of a Presidential race not yet at its most controversial, a 26 year-old folk singer named Ryan Adams released his solo debut. He had a round face, as if yet to lose his baby fat, hair that hung over his downcast eyes, and a drawl that shone through on his “oh’s” and “why’s.” He sang about being young and sad and high, crafting a melancholia so palpable that you could sink into it. The album, Heartbreaker, became an instant classic.

Twenty years later, the nation is again reeling from a controversial presidential election. Adams’ face is still round, though now in the way of a man who has given up his diet, and his hair is still shaggy, though now sprinkled with strands of grey. The twang is a bit deeper, worn down by a cigarette habit he never hid, but there nonetheless. He sings about being old and sad and sober. His new album, Prisoner, is a classic without a genre. Things stay the same, even when they change.

Perhaps I miswrote when I said that Prisoner has no genre. It’s Sad White Guy music. In many ways, this has always been Adams’ genre, from the Americana Heartbreaker to the 90’s Brit-pop inspired Love is Hell to his covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989. When one is as prolific as Adams, both in quantity and style, themes become genre. Adams recognizes this and leans into it, adorning his albums with signifiers of the Sad White Guy. He has enough self-awareness to recognize that the cover of Love is Hell (and even the name itself) and the photos on the inner sleeve of Heartbreaker would be supremely embarrassing if totally sincere. However, Adams is not being entirely ironic with them—such a tone would be entirely dissonant with the contents engrained within the record grooves. Instead, a mirrored image of a bed-headed Adams serves the same purpose as a photo of the Clash bassist smashing his instrument—it confirms the genre of an eclectic artist.

There is something comforting about Prisoner. It’s like the old friend who has a new post-divorce haircut but the same personality. He cries a bit too much, but he always has, and he still laughs at the inside jokes that illuminate more than either of you would like. This familiarity, however, does not hide the album’s beauty. The 80’s reverb on the guitars match the shaky folk voice that elongates the vowels, creating a singular sound that feels as timeless as it does new. As in much of his work, place refuses to settle into the background, instead insisting on its primacy as a form of emotional expression. The empty home in “Haunted House” and desolate landscape on “To Be the One” convey as much emotional distress as imagined conversations or explicit pining. After years of alternating between folk and personal projects, Adams has finally managed to mend the two. Despite how critics would phrase it, there were never two Ryan Adams—his 80’s obsession and folk genius are flip sides of the same coin. Steve Hyden suggested that Ryan Adams, 1989, and Prisoner form a divorce trilogy. He’s not wrong, though I believe the connection between the three is even deeper. The previous two albums have been experiments, playing with how to best combine his sonic influences with his predisposition to Americana. Prisoner cannot exist without 1989, which in turn needs his eponymous album. The past three years have been building to this.

As with any good midlife crisis album, emptiness pervades Prisoner. The prisoner, after all, is permanently alone in his cell. But here, the loneliness goes deeper. In Heartbreaker, his love had left him and his friends were gone, but he still had his imagination and the objects around him. The empty bottle talked to him, his pills insisted he go out, the knives were too dull to smile, and the clouds refused to rain. In his emptiness, there was still life, as the inhuman world of North Carolina filled the void. He could even imagine his love regretting her decision, hallucinating him in shop windows and weeping softly. 17 years later, all of this has changed. The spiders move across the lattice but say nothing. His haunted house has no ghost. His imagination isn’t blank, but only shows his ex laughing with some other guy. Megalomania has transformed into solipsism. Even the cover—an abstract self-portrait—gets at this, a gesticulated expression of Ryan Adams caught in his own pain. It’s a semi-professional invocation of Scream, where universal terror is replaced with personal sadness.

In this understanding it makes sense that the album starts with its weakest song. While the rest of the record digs through memories of a music-saturated childhood to build something new, “Do You Still Love Me” is pure pastiche. Well, perhaps not pure pastiche. As the scholar Fredric Jameson says, pastiche is the wearing of dead mask, but without any of parody’s “ulterior motives.” It is borrowing from older forms solely because there are no new forms to produce. But what happens when the thing being parodied is itself empty? 80’s arena rock is and was pure commercialism. By tying it to his memories, Adams imbues the vapid with meaning, only to re-empty it again by sharing. In doing so, he questions how much meaning our memories truly have, and whether the emotional power of them can ever be shared with others. Late 80’s Def Leppard guitar riffs don’t invoke a lost childhood for me as they do for Adams. To me, all they signify is bland commercial films. Ryan seems to be asking if it is possible to convey emotion in an artistic landscape where everything is empty parody.

Perhaps, then, Adams’ genre is not Sad White Guy Music but Sad Ryan Adams Music, his albums filled with songs that are filled with memories poignant only to him. But this would discount the emotional resonance that pushed Prisoner to number 3 on the charts despite it being an independent record. Digging at this, we hit at the heart of the post-modern belief that truth and language, those intertwined concepts, are completely subjective. I cannot explain my pain to you, and you cannot explain yours to me. Your belief that you are in pain is subjective, as is everything else. However, this can quickly slip into a nihilism that reinforces the status quo—if nothing matters, why make art or study philosophy instead of trying to get rich and living high? Furthermore, if everything were subjective, I—a 21 year-old who has never been in a long relationship, much less divorced—would not feel the sorrow of the album. Humans feel emotions—joy, sadness, hatred, disgust, and so many more. These emotions themselves are not truth. But when they are put into writing, or music, and made to invoke, something changes. The British writer Sam Kriss points out that good writing provokes joy even in sadness, in “the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude.” In this voice, there is a truth. Not all art provokes this truth; if I may briefly indulge my pretention in borrowing from the theorist Theodor Adorno, art that wishes to attain this truth must indulge in a “pure subjectivity,” intoning “in language until the voice of language itself is heard,” paying attention to nothing but itself and its form, unconcerned with the world around it.[1] It is in this myopic subjectivity, in works that make no attempt to explain the relationship between the subject and society, where objective truth can be found. Insisting on your own objectivity, your own presentness, or your own timelessness will always fail. Over his 20+ year career, Adams has consistently worked towards such a point, mining himself and constantly digging deeper into his memory, taking riffs from an unreachable idyllic past and diction from his geographical home until some form of objectivity is found. At his worst, which often coincides with his most drug-addled, it leads to a narcissistic, myopic pity party that borders on emotional exploitation. At his best, he slams headfirst into objective language, creating Sad Human Music. The kid trapped in Jacksonville, North Carolina and the in-the-dumps Londoner are both melancholic, and in this melancholia there is Truth. The causes change but the end result stays the same. Adams, lonely and solipsistic, is a priest of this truth, stumbling through the darkness around him to find beauty in the empty.


[1] Adorno is writing specifically on Lyric Poetry, but one can apply the principles to song lyrics, though Adorno is probably spinning in his grave at the thought of us doing so.

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